GP MENTOR: What I Wish I Had Known about Advising Small Businesses

By Harrison A. Lord

When I first started practicing law, I had distinct ideas about who my clients would be. They would be rich. Many of them would drive Maseratis. They would spend insane amounts of money litigating and wouldn’t care how many all-nighters it took to win their case, which was their all-encompassing desire. They existed, primarily, for me to try cases and get paid.

This, of course, was nonsense. Small businesses are run by real people, and real people don’t exist for my benefit, or yours. So here are a few thoughts to keep in mind as you represent small businesses and their owners:

Your Clients Are Not Rich

Not even the ones who drive Maseratis. At least, they don’t think they are. There are, of course, exceptions—a client once laughed at my attempts to keep his costs down; he told me, “Son, we’re rich. You spend whatever you need to spend. We just want to win.” But most people don’t consider themselves rich, even when all objective evidence indicates they are. Clients aren’t poor, either: Start-ups and companies struggling to remain viable want top-notch legal help even when money is tight. Irrespective of outward appearances (and, for that matter, reality), small businesses appreciate value. It’s not about cost—it’s about what they get for their money. Make sure the value is there.

This Is Not Your Clients’ Job

Your job is to be the lawyer. Your clients, however, are probably not lawyers. Their job is not to work on the deal or draft answers to discovery. This is why they hired you. Even if you handle this situation every day, for your clients it’s stressful, uncertain, and scary. They need you to guide them through it. No one wants to pay a professional and then do all the work themselves. You need your clients to provide the answers to the interrogatories or the inventory for the purchase agreement—you simply don’t have the information. But you can, and should, smooth the way for them to do that work and understand why it’s important. That’s why they’re paying you. Make it easy.

It’s Not about You

You are not the star of your clients’ drama—they are. Ask yourself what you’d want your lawyer to do in any given situation. For instance, several months ago I wanted to purchase a service. I went online to see what it cost but was completely stymied. No one would give me a price. I could fill out forms for a consultation, or a free white paper, but no one would just tell me what—or even how—they charged. I was outraged. I ranted to my wife, and then—mid-rant—had an epiphany: This is how clients feel. I updated my website to include pricing information that night, and clients appreciate it.

If something bothers you, don’t do it. If you want it, give it to your clients. A few more examples:

Hate it when vendors take forever to respond? Get back to your clients in a timely manner. Hate it when vendors surprise you with big bills? Work with your clients to bill them in a way that fits their business. Hate parking downtown? Locate your office in an area that’s easy to access.

These changes may be less convenient for you. Tough. It’s not about you; it’s about the people whose trust and money make your business viable.

As a solo or small firm lawyer, you are a small business owner. You are your client base. Do the things you’d want someone to do for you. Be the lawyer you’d want to hire.

Harrison A. Lord is the founder and managing member of [ask LEGAL] | Lord Law Firm, PLLC, in Charlotte, North Carolina. As a business lawyer and commercial litigator, Harrison’s practice focuses on helping businesses and their owners reduce their risks, resolve disputes and collect the money owed them, and plan for a successful future. He relishes his dual roles as general counsel and trial lawyer. Harrison tries very hard to be the kind of lawyer he’d want to hire.